"I was interested in expanding the range of material that I was using for my paintings to include more image-based source material. Black-themed coloring books from the seventies fascinated me because they were so clearly linked with the project of black liberation. Any depiction of a black person, from Malcolm X to a boy swinging on a tire, was a little revolution because it meant that our histories, stories, images and heroes mattered." Glenn Ligon
The famous face of Malcolm X framed behind rimmed glasses is recognized through its contours but not coloring in Glenn Ligon’s painting from 2000. Rather, the controversial leader who advocated militancy in pursuit of equality for African Americans during the Civil Rights era, is presented as a clown in white face painted with blue eyeshadow, fuchsia lips and dots of red on his cheeks. Glenn Ligon’s painting was produced through a set of strategies the artist has employed since the late 1980s that have established him as one of the most important of his generation: Ligon appropriates passages from a text, or in this case an image from a coloring book, and pushes the legibility of that image or text to a level of abstraction that dissolves its ability to be comprehended. Malcolm X addresses and integrates important themes in Ligon’s practice, chief among them appropriation, painterliness and the politics of identity, specifically the Black experience in America. In this painting, Ligon also considers how our relationship to history and its important figures changes over time.
For this painting, Ligon worked with a set of images he found in Afrocentric coloring books from the 1970s in the Archie Givens Sr. Collection of African American Literature at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis while in residence at the Walker Art Center in 2000. Made in the immediate period after the Civil Rights movement, coloring books such as these were used to celebrate the accomplishments of the movement’s leaders, Black heroes throughout American history, including Harriet Tubman and George Washington Carver, as well as Black celebrities like Isaac Hayes, to bolster a sense of pride in the school children they were given too. Speaking of his source materials, Ligon has said, “I was interested in expanding the range of material that I was using for my paintings to include more image-based source material. Black-themed coloring books from the seventies fascinated me because they were so clearly linked with the project of Black liberation. Any depiction of a Black person, from Malcolm X to a boy swinging on a tire, was a little revolution because it meant that our histories, stories, images and heroes mattered. But our relationship to all that material is quite different now and I wanted to think about that historical distance and issues of engagement and indifference. I decided to give the coloring book images to kids from three to nine years old, from all backgrounds, to color on them, then I made paintings based on their drawings. In essence, I commissioned my own source material” (G. Ligon to L. Firstenberg, “Neo-Archival and Textual Modes of Production: An Interview with Glenn Ligon,” Art Journal, Spring 2001, p. 47).
Ligon found out that these heroes of the past weren’t sacred idols when he gave pages from the books to schoolchildren in the Twin Cities area to color-in. Unconcerned with who they were coloring, the children responded to the task by exercising their creative license, producing results such as the one Ligon duplicated in Malcolm X. Speaking of the coloring sheets made by the schoolchildren, Ligon said, “The drawings have an innocent, unproblematic relationship to questions of race, identity, etc., because the images they are coloring on don’t mean anything to the kids…Everything that comes to mind when I see an image of Malcolm X—his speeches on 125th Street, his red hair, the trip to Mecca, how handsome he was—got mixed in my head with the way the kids colored in the image” (G. Ligon, “A Conversation with Glenn Ligon,” Minneapolis, 2001, p. 31). Continuing in his statement for the exhibition, he wrote, “Kids’ relationship to culture, language, and identity isn’t yet fixed. They haven’t yet ingested all the rules and prohibitions adults have, so there is no one way that things have to be in their drawings” (G. Ligon, “Artist Statement,” Minneapolis, 2000, n.p.).
In a twist on the multi-colored silkscreens Andy Warhol made of celebrity icons Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy and others, Ligon silkscreens the coloring book’s image onto a canvas and used the children’s interpretations as his guide for coloring his painted versions. The results were first exhibited at the Walker Art Center in Ligon’s 2000 exhibition, Coloring, a title that registers in double entendre to refer to the act of coloring in the coloring books and also a commentary on race and how one’s perceptions of another are altered by color. As art historian and critic Richard Meyer described, “Transferred by Ligon from crayon to paint, from coloring book to canvas, and from child to adult, [the paintings] necessarily take on new associations and effects…Rather than enacting a drag parody of Black Nationalism, the painting partakes in the pleasures and unpredictable inversions of color(ing) so as to activate the image of Malcolm X in a later historical moment” (R. Meyer, “Light It Up, or How Glenn Ligon Got Over,” Artforum, May 2006, pp. 244-246).
Integrating painting with a commercially-produced coloring book, Ligon mixes high and low to revisit notions of celebrity and ideas of history as it shifts over time. As Wayne Koestenbaum deftly points out in the catalog essay accompanying the Coloring exhibition, “Iconicity is a form of makeover, a color scheme laid over a neutral surface” (W. Koestenbaum, “Color Me Glenn,” Colorings, Minneapolis, 2001, p. 9). In other words, Ligon’s painting of Malcolm X diffuses the iconic aura around his figure, positioning him as a structure to be “colored” in according to the needs of the moment. Ligon concurred, stating, “Each generation makes the Malcolm X they need” (G. Ligon quoted in AfroModern: Journeys Through the Black Atlantic, Liverpool, 2010, p. 78).